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'Lightning Returns: FFXIII' review: the end of a trilogy

Taken using the game's Overworld system, an integrated social media link.Lightning plays with fire.
Taken using the game's Overworld system, an integrated social media link.Lightning plays with taken by me, game by Square Enix

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13


Accursed L’cie. Champion of Etro. Claire Farron. Lightning. The main character of the 'Final Fantasy XIII' series has collected an impressive list of names and aliases over the years. For the series’ last entry, 'Lightning Returns: FFXII,' she assumes her final title of the savior. Her role is to serve the almighty God Bhunivelze, who promises Lightning that her beloved (and deceased) sister will be reborn should the savior meet expectations. Her task is to save as many human souls as possible in 13 days before the world ends. On that last day, God shall appear to form a new world, using the saved souls to populate it.

Lightning's victory pose in one of many possible Schema (armor sets)
Lightning's victory pose in one of many possible Schema (armor sets)Square Enix

In the 500 years between the end of 'FFXIII-2' and Lightning’s reawakening at God’s behest, the world has been slowly consumed by Chaos. People have been immune to aging the whole time, but have still been susceptible to death from disease and violence. Chaos has corrupted the entire planet, leaving only 4 bastions of humanity remaining. These 4 areas serve as the game’s primary environments. Between 2 bustling cities, an expansive wind-swept grassland, and a sprawling desert with a complex underground labyrinth, there exists healthy variety in the game’s settings.

There’s an intriguing novelty to the idea of being a Jesus-like figure – one who walks among the people administering salvation before the end of days. It certainly makes for a unique narrative. While the concept is refreshing, there is one part it certainly could have done without: the time limit. There are only 13 days before the end of the world, and the game means business about this. A clock on-screen constantly reminds the player that its crunch time. Several real-time seconds equate to one minute on the fictional clock, but every moment counts, as time has a serious effect on gameplay. Some crucial areas will only unlock at certain times, some NPCs will only spawn when the time is right, and perhaps most annoyingly of all, some quests are artificially gated to take several days to complete, with only a partial phase available to finish per day. These artificial barriers add next to nothing to the experience and serve only to annoy. In a word, they cause tedium. However, Lightning does have the ability to briefly freeze the clock while still being able to take action normally, and even without it, the 13 days turn out to be plenty for completing most of the game’s content without too much worry.

When it comes to content, there are 5 main quests spread among the game’s 4 environments. These 5 major sources of Chaos are Lightning’s main focus and where a good portion of the story is told. Each one features interactions with a main character from a previous XIII series entry. Outside of these major quests, Lightning is encouraged to roam the world freely. Wherever she goes, she is guaranteed to meet people whose souls are in need of saving, and thus a massive source of side quests awaits her. Each side quest giver is assigned 1, 2, or 3 stars, indicating the difficulty of the quest they wish to give you. One star equates to a trivial task, such as finding a girl’s lost doll. Two stars ups the ante slightly, perhaps tasking Lightning with finding a mixture of ingredients from all over a zone to cook up medicine for an injured dog. Three stars means the quest is either incredibly tedious by taking multiple days to complete, or challenges Lightning to face fiercely strong monsters. In any case, Lightning is free to tackle both major and minor quests whenever she wants (barring the few time sensitive missions here and there). This freedom is empowering, and allows the player to engage in activities at their own pace – except for the doomsday clock, of course.

The truly shining star of 'Lightning Returns' is its revamped combat system. Lightning is the only playable protagonist throughout the entire game. The tradeoff is that the player has absolute control over her actions. Gone are the menus of traditional RPGs. Combat is entirely in real time with the new Schemata system. Lightning can bring 3 sets of equipment into battle, called Schema. Each Schema is equipped with 4 abilities mapped to the face buttons. Lightning can swap freely between each of the 3 sets during battle, giving her unparalleled flexibility. She is limited only by the ATB meter – essentially the energy bar, and each ability takes a certain amount of energy to use. Each equipment set has its own ATB bar, independent from the other 2, allowing Lightning to constantly perform actions as long as she switches Schema wisely. The 2 inactive Schema will regenerate energy in the background.

The abilities Lightning has access to take cues from traditional FF tradition: there are physical attacks, debuffs, and classic magic abilities like Blizzara and Thundaga. Defensive abilities are also included to let Lightning use her shield for blocking – an essential asset due to the nature of real-time combat.

Time is a crucial element to the game as a whole. And that is also how skill is rewarded in the game’s combat – well-timed offense and defense yield powerful bonuses. Timing the presses of a physical or magic combo perfectly yields a bonus to make them more effective, while perfectly timing a block right before an enemy’s strike lands yields a perfect guard, nullifying most, if not all, damage as opposed to just a portion of it. Thanks to the Schemata system, combat flows well, good timing and skill are rewarded, and the limits imposed on Lightning do not get in the way of making her still feel powerful and able to deal with any situation.

While the excellent combat design does many favors for 'Lightning Returns,' it cannot make up for the jarring, immersion-breaking disparity in the game’s graphics. For the most part, the game looks good. Great, even. As expected, Lightning herself looks amazing, not to mention the dozens of color-customizable armor sets she can find throughout the game. But the same cannot be said for most of the NPCs, the minor characters, the very people whose souls Lightning is trying to save. They look downright terrible, and seem as though they belong in a different game previous generation of video games while standing next to Lightning. Some environments are the same way. Store interiors, small assets like bottles, and even wall textures look incredibly low resolution. These various ugly parts stick to the mind, since when juxtaposed with the rest of the game that generally looks good, the oddballs are especially confusing and repulsive.

Ultimately, Lightning’s final adventure offers a mostly predictable plot that is saved by an engaging real-time combat system. At the very least, 'Lightning Returns' offers a definitive conclusion to the XIII saga. All the main characters receive closure, and the ending itself was strangely satisfying. A comprehensive playthrough of the game with a hefty amount of side quests completed (enough to unlock the hidden epilogue) takes about 40 hours, give or take. Square Enix may not have struck lightning with the 'Final Fantasy XIII' saga, but their decision to stick to their guns and see the whole thing through was respectable. It’s say to safe that Lightning Returns sends the trilogy out with a (literal) bang rather than a sad whimper.